John Edgar Wideman

John Edgar Wideman

 

NEW YORK (AP) _ When Pittsburgh native John Edgar Wideman learned he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his response was to welcome the news and to think about what it means.

“Yes, it’s great for me, but how does this recognition function in a larger society, how does it work?” the author of such acclaimed books as the memoir “Brothers and Keepers” and the novel “Philadelphia Fire” told The Associated Press during a recent interview.

The academy announced 12 inductees Thursday, among them photographer Robert Frank, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and author, journalist and New Yorker editor David Remnick.

Other inductees include novelist Peter Carey, pioneering multimedia artist Joan Jonas and electronic music composer Paul Lansky, the academy told The Associated Press. The academy also elected the painter, stage designer and printmaker David Salle; artist Pat Steir; and composers Sebastian Currier and David Rakowski.

Two honorary foreign members were added: British author Julian Barnes and the German photographer Thomas Struth.

Founded in 1898, the academy is an honor society with 250 core members, divided among literature, music and the visual arts. Toni Morrison, Stephen Sondheim and Jasper Johns are among the current members. Inductees have no obligations beyond agreeing to join, although many serve on prize committees, for which they are paid a stipend.

Wideman says he read a history of the academy _ sent to him by the academy. He noted the early record of excluding Blacks (and almost anyone who wasn’t a male, white Christian) and cited Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston as among the writers never elected.

“Isn’t that something, what would American literature be without those people?” he said.

W.E.B. Du Bois was the first Black inducted, in 1944. Former members also include James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, while Morrison, poet Rita Dove and novelist Ernest J. Gaines are in the academy now. Current members nominate candidates, and Wideman would like to see authors Ishmael Reed and Paule Marshall among others voted in.

“They have to represent something special. That’s what matters to me,” he said. “It’s always about the art.”

Wideman pointed out that he is close to the same age, 74, as Du Bois was when he joined the academy, although Wideman is far from the oldest member of the class of 2016. Frank, one of the world’s most influential photographers, renowned for his landmark collection “The Americans” from the 1950s, turned 91 last fall. His election comes a year after the academy voted in the essayist and baseball writer Roger Angell of The New Yorker at age 94.

The new list includes another longtime New Yorker staff writer, Jane Kramer, who specializes in European culture and politics, and Remnick, who has edited the magazine since 1998 and won a Pulitzer Prize four years earlier for “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.”

“I am absolutely sure this (election to the academy) is some kind of mistake,” Remnick wrote in an email to the AP. “But in a year in which Donald Trump is winning primary after primary, maybe anything is possible.”

Collins is one of the country’s most popular poets and served as poet laureate from 2001-2003. The Australian-born Carey won the Booker Prize for his novels “Oscar and Lucinda” and “True History of the Kelly Gang.”

Openings in the academy occur after a member dies. Ornette Coleman, novelist Robert Stone and poet Philip Levine are among those who passed away in 2015.

 

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